by Ronald Larsen
Professor Nicholas Japeth Chichester was a mess of a dragon. How he managed to survive to the age of 149 was a topic of conversation among both faculty and students at the University of St. Swithens in the Vale-n-Dale.
Upper-class dragons had been heard to fill newbie students in about Nicholas: “I heard the flaky old bastard fared badly in a battle with humans during the Dragon Wars of the 60’s and is somewhat shell-shocked, whatever the hell that is. He won’t look at anybody, ever. When he walks, he looks down at the ground. Nobody remembers ever seeing him fly. His teaching assistant helps him get to and from his classes. When he’s lecturing, he either looks down at his notes or up at the far corner of the classroom ceiling. He either speaks in a monotone or mumbles, and you generally can’t understand what he says even if you can hear him. But his class is a guaranteed A.”
Once in a while, one of the newer, eager female students would exclaim, “It sounds like the poor dragon should be in an institution.”
“What do you think the Liberal Arts Department is?” somebody would offer, and everybody would have a good laugh.
Although he was a bit of a nitwit and a sometime object of pity, Nicholas was not uneducated. He’d spent 20 years as an undergrad, 26 years as a graduate student and, finally, made associate professorship at age 69. Nobody, including himself, knew exactly what he taught, but there he was. Even with his reputation as one of the more incompetent professors, or perhaps because of it, Nicholas did have a full teaching load.
The community as a whole took great pride in St. Swithens’ reputation as a school for “Mining, Smelting, Goldsmithing, Brewing and Other Technical Pursuits Worthy of the Modern Dragon.” Never one to neglect a rounded education, The Head Dragon insisted that students in the technical and culinary professions — mostly dragons but a few elves, humans, dwarves and Ferds — “take non-major classes to broaden their education and appreciation of the liberal arts (to say nothing of supporting the arts-and-afternoons-off faculty).” Nicholas’ classes fell into this category, mostly because they couldn’t have fallen anywhere else.
Old Howard, the Chairdragon of the Liberal Arts Department, would just smile dragon-style at the subject of Nicholas. “He’s a Chichester. Old, important family. Great-great-great-great grandfather founded St. Swithens, you know. His grandmother still contributes heavily to support the Liberal Arts and, of course, she’s interested in Nicholas’ welfare. Although Nicholas has some peculiarities, certain, ahh... ‘considerations’ must be made, you understand.”
Class attendance at USSV&D was compulsory, but immaterial in Nicholas’ case, and few students bothered. Nicholas did call the roll, but he never looked up from his papers; never looked around to see if a student was present, and never listened to hear if any student actually answered the roll call. In the early morning or late afternoon, you might find a few of the newbie students napping in his classroom while Nicholas droned on without ever looking up from the lectern. In fact, he sometimes ignored the class bell and rambled on until Ralph, his voyeuristic teaching assistant, would fetch him back to his office for an afternoon nap.
Things were different on test days. Mid-terms and finals were sacred at St. Swithens. A student would need to arrive early to find a seat on test days; no make-up tests allowed. Ralph passed out the tests, which involved long, complicated questions on existential philosophy — or something like that — and Greek cooking, but the students’ answers were immaterial because Nicholas didn’t know the correct answers himself and never actually graded a test.
Students in the know would show up early; fill in name, age, date and sex (frequently, infrequently, never). Ralph wanted this info for himself; mark down an answer, any answer, for every question; turn in the test for a guaranteed A; then go drink beer. A few newbie students would actually attempt to answer the test questions correctly, but it generally didn’t take them long to catch on.
It was a fine arrangement. It satisfied the Chichester family and kept the donations flowing; kept Nicholas out of the way where he couldn’t get into any trouble; helped the students keep up their grade-point averages; supported a teaching assistant; and gave Old Howard, the Chairdragon of the Liberal Arts Department, a situation so easy to deal with — namely Gramma Chichester — that it managed itself.
The University system had all the benefits of a government job with none of the drawbacks, such as low prestige and the requirement to occasionally produce a stack of incomprehensible paperwork. In Liberal Arts at USSV&D one had a nice, if cluttered and smallish, office; a regular paycheck; regular pay raises; very little actual work to do; few reporting requirements (in or out would generally do); five paid holidays per month; and a generous stipend for supplies at the campus brewery/liquor shop/bookstore.
Altogether, it was very satisfactory indeed, until Old Howard was found dead at his desk in the Chairdragon’s office. One morning someone noticed that the smell coming from his office was more pungent than usual, and it turned out to be Old Howard in a moderate stage of decay.
In due course, Old Howard was dealt with, and a new Department chair, Sir Lawrence Gerog Ashton Littleton, arrived. Things in Liberal Arts immediately became upset and unsettled. Sir Lawrence was a human and a decorated knight, to boot! In the years since the Dragon Wars had ended, there had been human and dwarf faculty members at the University, but mostly in the Mining, Smelting and Goldsmithing Departments. There had never before been a human faculty member in Liberal Arts, much less a human Department Chair. Many of the dragon professors were quite concerned about reporting to a mere human.
When he arrived, Sir Lawrence was heard to say, “The Liberal Arts Department really needs a good shaking up. Some of these complacent dragons need a good kick in the tail, and I’m just the white knight to do it.”
He was as good as his word. Sir Lawrence energetically waded through the stacks of paperwork in his new office; actually read his mail; demanded that his secretary take dictation; and worst of all, called a faculty meeting.
The usual boring topics were covered at said meeting but, at the end of the meeting, Sir Lawrence made a startling announcement. “I shall meet privately with each faculty member to review your teaching situation and consider your continuing position with the University. My secretary will post a schedule and each of you will arrive in my office at your appointed time with a report on your classes for the past three years, including syllabus, a tally of students with grades, and a written list of goals for the upcoming academic year.”
“I won’t put up with this indignity,” announced a non-tenured dragon history adjunct professor. “I quit.” An ancient Greek history teacher and two economics teachers also resigned. Several other faculty members made veiled threats regarding resignation.
None of this bothered Sir Lawrence. “Good riddance,” he commented. “Glad to see some of the deadwood go.”
Nicholas was scheduled for the last appointment on a mid-week afternoon. When it was his time to meet with Sir Lawrence, Nicholas arrived on schedule, escorted as usual by Ralph, but he just stood in the office doorway looking down at the floor, paralyzed by fear, unable to step into the room.
“Well, don’t just stand there, come in,” Sir Lawrence boomed.
Ralph pushed Nicholas into the office.
“Let’s have your report, Chichester.”
“I... I... I...” Nicholas stammered, looking even more intently at the floor. He turned twenty shades of red and shook so badly that a few of his looser neck scales rattled loudly.
“Speak up,” demanded Sir Lawrence. “I don’t understand a thing you are saying.”
“Nobody ever does, sir,” said Ralph.
“Nicholas Chichester, you are a disgrace to this Department, to the Chichester family and to your profession. It’s time you shape up. I demand that you make your presentation. Now! And look at me when you talk, dammit.”
Nicholas managed to get up to the desk, forced himself to look at Sir Lawrence and opened his mouth. But instead of speaking, he blasted out pink flame.
“Oh Lord, you hit him with pink flame!” Ralph exclaimed, incredulously. “That’s only for dragon lovemaking. Have you ever used that before?”
“No,” Nicholas admitted, looking down at the floor. “I... I... I didn’t mean to, I just got so, so flustered...”
“I don’t know what that will do to a human,” Ralph said. “I hope it doesn’t kill him. He doesn’t look burned. He’s just sitting there with a silly grin on his face, and I think he’s still breathing.”
Nicholas continued to look at the floor while Ralph stood and looked at the human for a long while. Finally, Sir Lawrence stirred in his chair and his silly grin turned into a slight smile. “Well now, that’s different,” the new Department Chair exclaimed. “I feel much, much more relaxed now. I think I’m actually feeling rather professorish, and I may even need a cigarette. Why don’t you fellows go back to doing whatever it is that you do, and I’ll deal with the monthly status report? That’s good, chaps, and please close the door behind you.”
As Ralph led Nicholas back to his own office, the new Department Chair leaned back into his comfy swivel chair with a big sigh. He pulled out a monthly Liberal Arts Department Status Report form, entered “Quo” under Status, and settled back for an afternoon nap. All was once again right with the Liberal Arts Department at the University of St. Swithens in the Vale-n-Dale.
Copyright © 2019 by Ronald Larsen